Darden/Curry PLE Stages a Texas Turnaround


The Darden School of Business develops leaders who are principled, disciplined and innovative — the exact traits needed by those in charge of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

The Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) was created to combine the power of the University of Virginia’s top business school and its top education school, the Curry School of Education, and bring it to bear on a seemingly intractable problem: chronically under-performing schools. This is accomplished by combining executive education with ongoing support, resources and tools for school, district and state leadership teams. 

“We draw heavily from the experience of the Darden Executive Education program,” said LeAnn Buntrock, executive director of the PLE.  “We bring that same level of executive education experience to leaders in the field of education.”

In 2004, the PLE created the University of Virginia-School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP), now the most established school turnaround program in the country. It is also the only turnaround program that utilizes a systemic approach to dramatically improve low-performing schools by working with school-, district- and state-level leadership teams to help them collaboratively build the internal capacity to support and sustain effective school turnarounds. This approach has led to success in places such as Virginia, Louisiana, Philadelphia, and North and South Dakota where average proficiency scores in math and reading have increased by over 40 percent in schools completing the program. Now, the PLE will take on Texas.

The state of Texas has invited the PLE to help develop and establish a statewide school turnaround initiative. According to Buntrock, one of the first steps to a successful turnaround is to find a strong school leader. That leader must have the required skill sets to make the turnaround work.

“The leader must have a drive for results. No excuses,” said Buntrock, who taught for five years in the Richmond (Virginia) City Public Schools. “He or she has to believe all kids can learn and must establish high expectations.”

But Buntrock, who left teaching to become an attorney specializing in employment litigation and education law, says those ambitious principals must also have the knack to get people on board. “You can’t mandate high expectations,” she said. “The leader must have the ability to influence, motivate and get people to buy into your vision.”

But the PLE isn’t looking for just “hero” principals. “You can’t rely on hero principals with no supporting infrastructure,” she said. That means the staff and teachers must also become leaders, supporting the principal’s vision and demanding excellence themselves. Additionally, school districts must enhance their processes such as hiring and data collection to support turnaround needs and provide principals with the freedom to act.

Radical steps are needed to transform the nation’s public schools, and education reform remains at the top of the U.S government’s “to do” list. On the heels of the George W. Bush era “No Child Left Behind” education law, which forced schools to report their progress, the Obama Administration is funneling $4.35 billion into its “Race to the Top” program, which is designed to create “systemic reform and embrace innovative approaches to teaching and learning in America’s schools.”

In Texas, the PLE program will educate and shape leaders at the state level and within five different school divisions. A total of 29 schools across Texas will be involved over the next two years.
From July 16-22, over 90 education leaders from Texas will arrive at Darden to learn from the business school’s intensive method of teaching leadership and management skills through coursework, case studies and discussions.

“We’re trying to get people to think like leaders,” said Buntrock. “We want them to think out the root cause of the problem and then come up with strategies that depend on the context of the school. There simply is no blanket approach.”

Delivering a first-rate education to America’s children depends on this type of innovative leadership.

Founded in 1954, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business is a professional school that improves society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.

For more information, contact communication@darden.virginia.edu

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